What do we talk about when we talk about Torchwood? We could talk about the long, strange trip the show has taken, from a garden variety spin-off from Doctor Who starring the first season's breakout secondary character, Captain Jack Harkness, to its own SFnal entity that seems to work better in a world where the parent show and its characters fade into the background. Or we could talk about how even more than Doctor Who, Torchwood seems to have blazed the trail for UK productions that find their most devoted audiences in the US, and how without it shows like Merlin, Primeval, Sherlock, and Being Human might never have been able to take the trip across the pond. Or about how the appetite that Torchwood and these other shows helped whet for British television has now culminated in a joint US-UK production of Torchwood's fourth season, perhaps presaging yet another turning point in the tumultuous process that the television medium has been undergoing for more than a decade. There are a lot of things we could talk about when talking about Torchwood, and almost any of them would make for a more interesting discussion than Torchwood: Miracle Day.
Alas, Miracle Day is our topic. But let me make one last stab at forestalling the inevitable by talking first about Children of Earth, the Torchwood miniseries that gave Miracle Day both its template and the impetus for its existence. Whether or not you liked Torchwood's first two seasons, during which the show was, in format if not in substance, a relatively straightforward SFnal procedural (and I am firmly in the "not" camp), Children of Earth would have come as a shock. A five-hour story taking place over as many days, it describes the events that transpire when a powerful, pitiless alien species demands a tribute of Earth's children, or else. It's a bleak, deeply cynical story which sidelines the Torchwood characters for much of its run and culminates with the death of fan favorite Ianto Jones (a move that caused the fans' ire to descend upon the Torchwood production, not least because Ianto's death put a premature end to his romance with Jack) and with Jack choosing to kill his own grandson, Steven, in order to save the rest of the world's children. It's also a sharply written story in which the show, so often mired in melodrama during its first two seasons, finally seems to find its legs. The mission statement laid out in Torchwood's pilot episode was for a series that explored how humanity might cope in the Doctor's universe without the Doctor there to hold our hand and save the day, and after two seasons that seemed more interested in exploring the cast's tangled sex lives and juvenile squabbles, Children of Earth seemed to have finally found that story.
Which brings us to Miracle Day. On paper, the potential for greatness was all there. Torchwood had already cleared the hump of its lackluster early seasons and found its footing. It had committed new backers in the form of American cable channel Starz (best known for the swords and sandals and full frontal nudity series Spartacus: Blood and Sand), who co-produced the new season with the BBC. It had the combination of the aftermath of Children of Earth's events and a new, American setting in which it could develop the show's themes while telling a new story. In the writers' room, Russell T. Davies was joined by such stalwarts of American genre television as Jane Espenson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, Warehouse 13) and John Shiban (The X-Files, Enterprise, Supernatural), while in front of camera could be found Mekhi Phifer, Bill Pullman, Lauren Ambrose, Wayne Knight, Mare Winningham, and Frances Fisher. When you consider that the last time this many name actors turned up in a science fiction show it was during the later seasons of Battlestar Galactica, you get a sense of the kind of prestige production that Miracle Day was supposed to be (though the show throws genre fans a bit of love too with guest spots for Ernie Hudson, Nana Visitor, and John de Lancie). And yet the mini itself is not simply bad—though it is undeniably that—but bad in ways that make one sentimental for the over the top, camp, Cyberwoman-vs.-pterodactyl badness of Torchwood's early episodes, the kind of badness you could really sink your teeth into. Miracle Day, in contrast, is simply rather dull and shapeless.
The miracle of the title is the cessation, everywhere on the planet, of death. No matter how catastrophically injured or terminally ill, the human race just keeps on living. At the same time as the miracle occurs, a computer virus wipes all references to Torchwood from the world's networks, which rather counter-productively draws the attention of CIA agent Rex Matheson (Phifer) and analyst Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins). They track down the last surviving member of the Torchwood team, Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), who has been living in seclusion in Wales with her husband Rhys (Kai Owen) and their baby daughter, and along the way also pick up Captain Jack, who had taken himself off for an epic sulk after the events of Children of Earth. This leads to the revelation that the miracle has had the opposite effect on him as it has on the rest of humanity—the formerly immortal Jack can now die. The miracle also occurs shortly before the scheduled execution of Oswald Danes (Pullman), convicted of raping and murdering a child. When he is released through one of those loopholes that, television keeps telling us, the legal system is simply riddled with, he becomes a celebrity, the face of the post-death world. This brings him to the attention of Jilly Kitzinger (Ambrose), an amoral and ambitious PR flack who sees Oswald as her ticket to the big leagues.
Miracle Day follows two stories. The first is the investigation into the cause and purpose of the miracle, spearheaded by Jack, Gwen, Rex, and Esther and alternately hindered and enabled by the CIA. It seems cut from the same cloth as another heavily publicized but ultimately disappointing series from earlier this year, AMC's The Killing. In both shows, a thin mystery plot is stretched out over too many episodes by constantly distracting the main characters with red herrings and false leads. Miracle Day lets the Torchwood/CIA team spin its wheels until well into the middle of the season by having them fixate first on a pharmaceutical company that turns out to be profiting from the miracle, but not responsible for it, and then on exposing the response of the world's governments to the sudden increase in population. Things seem to kick into gear in episode seven, "Immortal Sins," in which Gwen's family is kidnapped and she is ordered to deliver Jack to an unknown party. The episode itself, which alternates between flashbacks to Jack's romance with a young Italian immigrant in 1927 New York and a tense confrontation between him and Gwen over her choice to hand him over in exchange for her family, is the best in the season, but ultimately it does nothing to advance the plot. The people holding Gwen's family turn out not to be responsible for the miracle after all. They just want to talk to Jack (which, as they and he both acknowledge, he would have done without coercion given that they can take him to his still-living lover) and tell him who the actual guilty parties are. Then Oswald Danes turns up with information stolen from Jilly Kitzinger about where the bad guys are, so after nearly a whole season of stalling the answers just get dumped in our heroes' laps. As if to add insult to injury, the solution to the mystery of the miracle (what little of it we get—like The Killing, Miracle Day ends with many questions still unanswered, and in the obvious belief that the series will be granted another season in which to answer them; AMC has already renewed The Killing, but in the face of Miracle Day's lukewarm ratings and critical reception, Starz has held off from committing to a fifth season) makes no sense—it turns out that the season's McGuffin used Jack's blood as a template to transform humanity, but Jack is not only immortal but possesses regenerative abilities (abilities which are transferred to a character who is transfused with his blood at the end of the season), while the crux of Miracle Day's second storyline is that though death has been suspended, illness and injury have not.
This second strand is a portrait of the ways in which society changes in response to the suspension of death. To the show's credit, though the early episodes of the season do gesture towards a just-around-the-corner overpopulation apocalypse as a result of the miracle, the more concrete emphasis is on the less mathematically improbable issue of resource scarcity. Specifically, medical care and pain management for people sick enough or badly enough injured that before the miracle, they would have died. For the first few episodes of the season, the examination of this difficulty is the strongest aspect of the show, mainly because it is seen through the eyes of Miracle Day's best character, Dr. Vera Juarez (Arlene Tur). An ER doctor who is one of the first to realize that the entire book of medical procedures and practices has to be thrown out and rewritten, Vera is pragmatic, levelheaded, and clever. The scenes in which she and other members of a hastily-convened think tank of doctors and medical professionals trade nightmare scenarios of how the end of death could ruin all our lives are some of the most engaging and exciting moments in a season that also includes gunfights, kidnappings, and explosions. They have a whiff of SFnal speculation that is entirely absent from the rest of the season, and in Vera, they give us the kind of character that Torchwood should be about—terrified and knocked off balance by the realization that the things she'd taken as unshakable constants are nothing of the sort, but also determined to work the problem and, when she realizes that higher powers may have taken a more extreme approach to it, to expose them.
Unfortunately, the kind of sensible, thoughtful, moderate approach represented by Vera is antithetical to everything that Torchwood stands for, and she is killed off halfway into the season. In the same episode, it's revealed that medical resources are being portioned off according to a new category system. Those designated category 1—effectively dead—are taken away and incinerated while still alive. Leaving aside the glee with which the show breaks out the Holocaust imagery (as someone whose ancestors and relatives actually were murdered and incinerated by people who considered them less than human and unworthy of life, I can't thank Miracle Day for bringing home the realization that from now on, creators of popular culture are only going to get more comfortable using the image of those murders as fodder for cheap pathos in their grade-Z science fiction shows) what's aggravating about this turn is how calculated it is to shut down discussion of what should be a thorny question. We already live in a world in which it is legal, in many countries, to allow a person who is brain-dead to die and even to kill them by depriving them of nourishment. These are not uncontroversial laws, and to translate them into social policy is by no means an obvious next step even in the situation Miracle Day describes. But neither is it an obviously villainous one, as the show repeatedly tries to argue, either by recalling the Holocaust, or by remaining frustratingly vague about what category 1 actually means, or by having the unctuous bureaucrat in charge of the cremation facility (who had previously shown himself to be racist and sexist, just so we're not confused about who the bad guys are) kill Vera to prevent her from telling the world what's going on in them.
That same heavy-handedness characterizes much of the political storytelling in Miracle Day, which somehow manages to be simultaneously over the top and tedious. Whether because he is an outsider to America, or simply because that's the kind of writer he is, Davies trades in some absurdly overdrawn stereotypes about the American right, from Winningham's character, a Sarah Palin clone who segues from talking about family values to explaining that "Dead is Dead" and that those who have failed to die should be quarantined for our moral and spiritual well-being, to Vera's murderer revealing that some people are placed in category 1 because they don't have medical insurance. It is in this morass that Oswald spends most of Miracle Day's running time, which does nothing to make more plausible the show's contention that the shell-shocked public would rush to embrace this monster as a latter-day prophet.
Besides failing in their own rights, Miracle Day's two strands undermine one another. The mystery is bogged down and ultimately rendered inert by the emphasis on worldbuilding in the season's early episodes, and towards the end of the season, the changes that the world has undergone come to seem less important as our heroes race to find a means of ending the miracle. Perhaps most disappointing is the fact that Miracle Day resets the world's state to what it was before Children of Earth, to the extent that even Jack and Gwen don't seem as affected by that story's events as they should be. Esther and Rex scoff at the Torchwood team's claim that aliens exist (even though an important sub-plot for Esther involves her concern for her two nieces, who would have been affected by the events of Children of Earth, which took place at most two years in her past), and the guilt at Ianto and Steven's death that drove Jack away from Earth at the end of the previous season seems to have been largely assuaged. There are hints that Miracle Day may have intended to address Children of Earth's legacy—in his first meeting with Oswald in episode three, "Dead of Night," Jack muses that they both know what it is to kill a child (a connection that might have justified Oswald's existence on the show; as it stands there seems to be no point to him except to see how thoroughly Davies can disgust both his characters and his viewers)—and perhaps these plotlines were redacted at Starz's request in order to make Miracle Day more accessible to new viewers. But the effect is that the season surrenders all the desperately-needed cachet that an association with Children of Earth might have given it.
To the many interesting things that we can talk about when we talk about Torchwood, we can now add a new topic of discussion: what went wrong? How could Russell T. Davies produce something as sharp and engaging as Children of Earth, and then slide back to the clomping, heavy-handed messages and incoherent plotting of Miracle Day? Some might say that the problem is too generous a running time, or a busybody network, or Americanization. To my mind, however, what Miracle Day reveals is that Torchwood's flaws haven't changed one jot since its beginning. It has always been a show that mistook overwrought melodrama for sophisticated maturity. The wonder of Children of Earth was that Davies hit on a premise sufficiently tense and heartrending that overwrought melodrama was the only reasonable, adult reaction to it. The core failure of Miracle Day is that he hasn't managed to find that kind of premise twice, and in the absence that kind of story, everything that was wrong with Torchwood comes right back to light. With Children of Earth, Torchwood seemed to find the story it had been created to tell, but perhaps the story should have ended there.
Abigail Nussbaum (email@example.com) is the Strange Horizons reviews editor. Her work has also appeared in The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Vector, Foundation, and the Israeli SFF quarterly The Tenth Dimension. She blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.